Remembering Fred Lynn

Before Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee hogged the spotlight, a lot of people were talking about Jim Rice and the Hall of Fame. Remember that? You do? Well, all of that talk made me nostalgic for 1975 in Boston. Remember that, too? No?

1975 was the year that Rice and Fred Lynn both broke into the major leagues for Boston. Few of us have ever seen anything like it. Both Rice and Lynn had fantastic rookie years; in fact, Lynn was so fantastic that he became the only person to win both the Rookie of the Year award and MVP in the same year. Lynn batted .331/.401/.566 with 47 doubles, 21 home runs and 105 RBI. He led the league in slugging percentage, runs and OPS and won a Gold Glove for his center field defense. That’s phenomenal.

But get this: Jim Rice was third in MVP balloting (Rollie Fingers was second). Think about that: Two rookies on the same team finished first and third in MVP voting. Rice was no slouch with the bat—he batted .309/.350/.491 with 22 homers and 102 RBI. The Red Sox went on to play in the World Series, the one in which Carlton Fisk hit one of the most famous home runs in history. Jim Rice, however, was dogged by the Curse of the Bambino: He broke his arm on September 21 and couldn’t play in the postseason.

Rice and Lynn were different in so many ways. Rice was the black slugger who started at DH because there was an icon in left field (one Carl Yastrzemski). Drafted in the first round of the 1971 draft (15th overall), Rice was a star in the minors, winning the Double-A Eastern League batting title in 1973 and the Triple-A International League triple crown in 1974. In fact, he was the Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year in ’74. Can you imagine a player doing that well and not being promoted to the majors until September of his Triple-A year? Wouldn’t happen nowadays.

Lynn was the California college boy, drafted out of USC two years after Rice, in the second round. As a sophomore he had led the nation in homers, but his power plummeted in his junior year, and his batting average dropped to .299. Clubs were scared off, and the Red Sox nabbed him with the 41st pick. Other players drafted that year were Dave Winfield, Robin Yount and Eddie Murray, Hall of Famers all.

Lynn’s minor league career wasn’t as distinguished as Rice’s. With Rice in Triple-A, Lynn batted “just” .282 (Rice batted .337) with 21 home runs, though he did catch the eye of Red Sox fans by batting .419/.490/.698 in 48 at-bats in his September callup. I may be wrong about this, but my recollection is that Rice received more preseason publicity than Lynn did; expectations were higher for the left fielder.

But once the season started, it was Lynn who caught everyone’s eye. He not only posted amazing numbers, he looked like a natural. His batting stroke resembled that of Ted Williams; he glided in center like DiMaggio. Yes, it was hyperbole, but it seemed real at the time. Lynn was The Natural.

Ah, the debates that followed that season! Who was better? Which would have the better career? Keep in mind that this was before the birth of sabermetrics; before Bill James’ first mimeographed Baseball Abstract; before The Hidden Game of Baseball. We were in uncharted territory—but what fun! Rice was a year younger, had more power; Lynn was a better all-around player with a sweet swing.

I remember playing ping pong at a friend’s house that offseason when his Dad started talking to us about Lynn. “How can he ever top that?” his Dad asked. “He can’t. That was the pinnacle of his career. I feel sorry for him.” Or words to that effect.

I had no idea what he was talking about. I was young, a college kid. I hadn’t yet learned the bittersweet heartbreak of unfulfilled expectations, of reaching a pinnacle too early in life. I thought the sky was the limit for young Lynn. I didn’t appreciate what I had seen.

Nowadays, the common wisdom is that Lynn never did live up to those expectations. He went on to have more good years with the Red Sox, but he never finished higher than fourth in later MVP voting. When the Sox didn’t send him a contract in time before the 1981 season, he filed for free agency (a radical idea at the time). Rather than losing him to free agency, the Sox traded him to the Angels, and Lynn spent the rest of his career in Anaheim and Baltimore, Detroit and San Diego. Much of that time, he fought off injuries—nagging ones that never quite healed (a worse-case Carlos Beltran), and larger ones that resulted from Pete Reiser-esque clashes with the outfield wall.

But there’s a little something off with that common wisdom: Lynn did sneak in one other fantastic year. In fact, he was better in 1979 than in his rookie year: He batted .333/.423/.637 with 42 doubles, 39 home runs, 116 runs scored and 122 RBI. He finished first in average, OBP and slugging percentage (as well as OPS, of course), second in home runs and third in doubles, and he won another Gold Glove in center field. Lynn’s career year was 1979, not 1975.

And yet, he finished only fourth in MVP voting. Partly, he was a victim of circumstance: The Red Sox were out of the race by the beginning of September, even though they went 91-69. The Orioles of 1979 were 102-57 (watch the race here). Lynn finished fourth, behind Don Baylor, Ken Singleton and George Brett.

Don Baylor, a designated hitter for the AL-West-winning Angels, was the American League MVP in 1979. Why? Because he led the league in RBI with 139. That’s a huge number, 139; Baylor never cracked 100 in any other year of his career. Wanna know why he led the league in RBI? Because he came to bat 388 times with men on base—388 times! In contrast, Lynn had 278 plate appearances with men on base, more than 100 fewer chances to drive men in. Know what? Lynn batted .384/.457/.776 in those situations. Baylor batted .302/.379/.527. Not bad, but not Lynn-esque.

Baylor’s edge was that he batted behind Rod Carew (.419 OBP). Even former Red Sock Rick Miller had a career-high .367 OBP in the leadoff position for the Angels. Baylor batted fourth in a powerful lineup. On the other coast, Lynn batted third with guys like Rick Burleson (.319 OBP) and Jerry Remy (.297 OBP) hitting in front of him. Lynn played a Gold Glove center field. Baylor DH’ed.

Now, I’m not saying Lynn should have flat out won the MVP. Singleton had a great year; so did Brett. Shoot, Bobby Grich swatted 30 home runs and played a stellar second base for the Angels. But this was a time when the BBWAA didn’t understand what went on behind some of the old standard numbers like RBI. They didn’t know what to think of the DH. You don’t hear much about it, but Baylor’s MVP might have been one of those events that drove people like Bill James and Pete Palmer crazy. It might even have led directly to the sabermetric movement. Who knows?

I also wonder if Lynn’s 1979 season might have affected Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame credentials. Think about this for a second: If Lynn had won two MVPs instead of one, his Hall credentials would have been stronger. In his first year of eligibility, Lynn captured 5.5% of votes, and he never moved much beyond that total. Rice captured 30% of the vote his first year, hung around there for a few years, and then (for reasons unclear to me) jumped up to over 50% in 2000.

I’m not saying that Fred Lynn should be in the Hall of Fame, and I’m not saying that if he had won the 1979 MVP, he’d rank ahead of Rice. But the BBWAA calculus would be different, wouldn’t it? Lynn would have two MVPs, Rice would have one. I don’t think that Lynn’s case would have been that much stronger, but it just might have made Rice’s case relatively weaker. Perhaps Lynn would have garnered 10% to 15% of the vote his first year, and Rice’s take might have fallen a bit. If Rice starts out with only 20% to 25% of the Hall vote, how much would he have now?

We’ll never know, of course. Such are the subtle winds of fate, particularly when it comes to the fickle Hall of Fame voting.

There is one more “if” to Fred Lynn’s career, beyond the expectations of his rookie year, the injuries and the 1979 MVP. What if he hadn’t filed for free agency in 1981? What if he had continued to play in Fenway?

Lynn loved to bat at Fenway. In his career, Lynn batted .347 at Fenway, vs. .264 everywhere else. In 1979, he batted .386/.470/.798 at home, .276/.371/.461 away. In 1982, his best year after leaving Fenway, he batted .291/.359/.526 at home (Angel Stadium) and .308/.390/.507 away. Rice, who also loved to hit at Fenway, had the luxury of hitting there his entire career. If Lynn hadn’t been traded, my guess is that his career numbers would be very close to Rice’s, even with all the injuries and missed time. Throw in the Gold Gloves in center field and the two MVP awards, and you’ve got someone with just as strong a Hall of Fame case as Jim Rice has.

It didn’t happen. Fred Lynn never got more than 6% of the Hall of Fame vote. Jim Rice might make it next year. Such is life in Cooperstown, New York.

References & Resources
An alert reader pointed out to me that Ichiro also won both the MVP and Rookie of the Year award in the same year, 2001.

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